- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
The 2022 BFI London Film Festival has a lineup that — like so many previous years — is impressively crammed with the biggest and the buzziest films to have emerged from the summer and fall festival seasons. Empire of Light, The Banshees of Inisherin, The Whale, The Son and Decision to Leave are just some of the prestige titles screening.
But, like in 2021, the 66th edition of the event has landed a world premiere for its opening. Where last year’s curtain-raiser was a gun-slinging Western in The Harder They Fall from local boy Jeymes Samuel, this time it’s another unlikely genre that has been given launch duties. Adapted from the hugely successful stage play (which is in itself adapted from the beloved children’s book), Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical — telling the story of a remarkably intelligent little girl who must battle both her idiotic parents and nightmare school principal — kicks off proceedings on Wednesday, Oct. 5.
Starring Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch and newcomer Alisha Weir, the film — a Netflix and Sony/Tristar partnership from Working Title and the Roald Dahl Story Company — comes from Matthew Warchus, currently artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theatre, who directed the original stage musical and worked alongside its writer Dennis Kelly and songwriter Tim Minchin on the screen version. It also comes some eight years after Warchus’ previous feature, his acclaimed Cannes-bowing debut Pride.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, he explains the joy of tracking down his leading lady, says that he put his plans to make Matilda in his Old Vic contract before he knew if and when the film would even happen, and gives a welcome update to plans to turn Pride into a musical.
I may be incorrect, but I don’t think the London Film Festival has opened with a musical before. How does it feel to be lifting the curtain with a song and a dance for a change?
Yeah, I think that’s right. I think it’s very unusual, even to be opening with a family movie. So I feel very excited about that. Actually, I think it speaks to the kind of depth and riches that are in Tim Minchin’s work and Dennis Kelly’s work in creating a version of this story which has got so many dimensions to it. Some musicals can be relatively thin, but I think one of the special things about Matilda is the emotional scale.
This is obviously a film adaptation of your stage adaptation of the book. At what point did you think you should adapt this for cinema?
It was actually very early on in our process, probably while we were in rehearsals for the stage show. It’s fair to say that my head was full of cinematic images, so I could imagine a film version very earl. But it was quite a different thing, of course. to be given the opportunity to actually make it, and that opportunity didn’t really appear until about three years ago.
You’ve adapted several stage adaptations of films. What’s it like to go the other way?
A really, really big task. And the task was made bigger, because there’s something about being part of the success in one format and that made it feel like even more of a responsibility. I didn’t want to be the person that messed it up. But a key thing was the amount of time between those years we spent working on the stage show, which was 15 years ago, and us really going to work on the film adaptation. It was long enough so that those important but actually unhelpful emotional connections with the other version had started to fade, so it was possible to look back at it, and it was like looking at a stranger’s work and be able to say, that can be changed, instead of clinging on to something that’s very close to you. So it became possible for us to start again, really.
Did you always plan to direct yourself or were you ever going to hand the reins to someone else?
Yes, whenever I was feeling that the burden of responsibility was too great to bear, I would remind myself what it would feel like to sit there and watch someone else’s name appear and that got me back in.
How did you find your Matilda?
Yeah, it was great, big task. We had a team of people and they went out and did many regional auditions and searches and got 1000s of taped auditions for Matilda and the other children’s roles. I worked my way through tape after tape after tape, and it’s worth saying that what could have been quite an arduous task was completely transformed seeing all these amazing kids dancing and writing their own poems. It was great to have a window on how much talent and energy is out there. But for Matilda, it’s quite particular because you’re looking for somebody who can convey maturity, but who is very small and as young as possible, with a face that looks very thoughtful. So you’re looking for a different energy. And we got a tape of Alicia at home in Dublin. She didn’t look immediately like Matilda – she had a bright dress on and bright hair and was very smiley. The first thing I said was, “Let’s do this without a smile and see if your mum can put your hair down.” And her mum said, “We’ve just made her hair all nice for you!” But it became quickly apparent that she had something unique and was absolutely perfect.
There was a rumor a couple of years ago that Ralph Fiennes had been cast as Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress. Was there any truth to that?
With these things, there are a lot of conversations early on and some leak to the press. But the main thing to say, because I think it’s slightly inelegant to dwell on that, is how absolutely brilliant Emma is. I think she’s going to be a big surprise both for people who know the stage musical — where the character is played by a man — and those who don’t, but know Emma’s work. They won’t have seen her play anything like this.
And does Emma sing?
She has done a bit of singing, but I don’t think much on film. She was in the musical Me and My Girl and Steven Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd as well. So I knew she could sing, but I didn’t know that Lashana could sing, but she can and is wonderful.
It’s been eight years since Pride. Is there any particular reason for the long wait between film projects?
Well, just as Pride was about to go to Cannes, the week before I went I was approaching about become the Old Vic’s artistic director. So as soon as Pride was released I was already immersed in the job. But in my contract I put that I would have to leave at some point to do Matilda, even though I didn’t know how long it would take I didn’t plan to do another film prior but of course I did see scripts, some very good scripts. But first and foremost I’m a theater director, so I think it’s really important for me to give that proper focus. I see myself as a theater director who visits film whenever I’m lucky enough to do that. I really enjoyed making Pride. It was a story I cared a lot about. And if you care deeply about something it carries you through the tough task of making it. And I felt equally about Matilda. So if I’m on the lookout for other films, I’ll be trying to find something that I care really strongly about.
There was some talk about Pride came out about you turning it into a musical. Did that ever get anywhere?
Actually, when I was sent the screenplay, my immediate reply was that I’d love to do it and are the stage adaptation rights available as it should be a musical. But I will say that we are working on the musical now. Stephen Beresford, who wrote the screenplay, has written the adaptation already and we have songwriters working on it who are already delivering material. So this is becoming a reality.
As someone who has brought several films to stage, is there one movie that stands out that you think would be a particularly amazing adaptation?
Well, the thing that I would immediately want to answer with could be an appalling stage adaptation, which maybe is why nobody’s attempted it. But my favorite film of all time is E.T. And when I think how beautiful the horse in War Horse was and the sort of puppetry that can be done now, I think it might be possible somehow to adapt E.T. I’m not saying I’ve got the energy for it. When you love something a lot, like I was saying with Matilda, there’s real risk and trepidation. Imagine being the person who messed it up.
Sony Pictures UK and TriStar Pictures will release Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical across the U.K. and Ireland exclusively in cinemas on November 25, 2022. Netflix will release the film in the rest of the world [excluding the U.K. and Ireland] on December 25, 2022.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day